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"I don't think she's ready yet." The words floated up through Jodie's open bedroom window from the back deck.
"Oh, I agree! She's not!"
No one in the Palmer family ever thought Jodie was ready. She sat on her bed, struggling to raise her left arm high enough to push her hand through the strap on her summery, sparkly, brandnew tank top. The hand wouldn't go, which meant she couldn't start the long journey down the stairs to join the Fourth of July family barbecue as thenot her ideaguest of honor.
She pushed again, the feeble muscle refusing to obey the muddy signal from her brain. It was noon; time for everyone to start arriving. "So I guess they're right. I'm not ready," she muttered, but she knew this wasn't what her sister Lisa's comment had meant.
It had meant Not Ready, capital N, capital R, and during Jodie's twentynine years had covered everything from her learning the shocking truth about the Easter Bunny at the age of seven, to going out on her first date at fifteen. She vaguely remembered from last summer, about a hundred years ago, that Elin had even questioned her readiness to see Orlando Bloom's wedding photos in a magazineand, admittedly, she had been a little envious of the bride.
What wasn't she ready for this time?
It could be anything. Going back to work?
Well, yes, she knew she wouldn't be doing that for a while, since she managed and taught at a riding barn for a living and spent hours in the saddle every week at Oakbank Stables.
Reading the police report on the accident scene? Might never be ready for that one. Fixing her own coffee? Wrong, sisters. She'd been practicing in rehab and, not to sound arrogant or anything, she was dynamite when it came to spooning the granules out of the jar.
"Guys?" she called out to her sisters. "Can I have some help up here?"
From down on the deck she heard an exclamation, voices, the scrape of chairs. Lisa and Elin both appeared half a minute later, flinging the bedroom door back on its hinges with a slam, wearing frightened looks to complement their redwhiteandblue patriotic earrings.
"It's okay," she told them. "You can put the defibrillator down and cancel the 911 call. I just can't get my arm into this top, that's all, and I know people will start arriving any second."
"Maddy and John just drove up," Lisa confirmed. "And Devlin was right behind them."
"Devlin's coming?" Jodie's heart bumped sideways against her ribs. Dev. Every time she saw Dev
There was an odd little silence. Possibly there was. It ended so quickly that she wasn't even sure if it had happened.
"He's been so great, hasn't he?" Lisa said brightly. "How many times did he go in to see you, while you were in the hospital?"
"You tell me," Jodie joked. "I was unconscious for most of them."
"Do you remember anything from that time?" Elin asked, hesitant. At forty, she was the eldest of the four Palmer girls, and managed to be both the bossiest and the most nurturing at the same time. "The doctors said you might retain some memories, even from when you weren't responsive."
She and Lisa both stood there waiting for her reply, each almost holding their breath. Jodie fought a badtempered impulse to yell at them to stop the heck worrying about her so much!
Instead she said carefully, "I wouldn't call them memories "
"No ?" prompted Lisa.
"But let's not talk about it now. Help me downstairs. I'm so slow. My brain sends the instructions but bits of my body don't respond. I'm thrilled I managed to get into the jeans."
Thirtyeightyearold Lisa, sister number two, hugged Jodie suddenly with a warm, tight squeeze, and planted a smacking kiss on her cheek. Of the four Palmer girls, she and Jodie were physically the most alike, blonde and athletic, outdoorsy and lean. Lisa liked tennis and the beach and it had started to show in her tanned skin. She didn't take care of it the way she should. Hugging her back, Jodie decided she'd have to give Lisa a sisterly lecture about that, soon, because Palmer overprotectiveness could cut both ways.
The slight, strange tension in the room seemed to have gone, chased by the hug. "Honey, forget slow, we're just so happy you're okay," Lisa said. "Talking. Walking. Getting better every day. Homer
"I know." Jodie blinked back sudden tears as they let each other go. "Me, too."
Devlin Browne was standing on the deck when she reached it, his dark hair showing reddish glints in the sun, his body tall and strong; there was no evidence of the accident that had injured the two of them in such different ways, nine months ago. He grinned at the sight of her, from behind his sunglasses. "Look at you!" She wished she could see the expression in his blue eyes. He ran his life with such quiet confidence and certainty. She loved that about him, wished right now that some of his qualities would rub off on her.
"Yeah," she drawled in reply, "all the grace of a ballerina."
With a walking frame for a dance partner. The doctors and therapists had promised that if she worked hard, she'd be rid of it soon. She planned to astonish them with her progress.
"Don't knock it," Dev said. "Compared to how you were even a week ago."
"I know. I'm not knocking it, believe me." She felt so selfconscious in his presence, so aware of the strong length of his body. Nine months and more since those three explosive nights of lovemaking, but to her they felt like yesterday. The way their bodies seemed to fit together so perfectly. The smell of him, warm and fresh and male. The words he'd whispered to her in the dark, naked and blunt and charged with sensual heat. Did he ever think about it?
Lisa helped her to sit down and took away the frame, while Elin handed her an icecold glass of tropical juice. The deck was dappled with sun and shade, and there was a breeze. It was a perfect day. Dev pulled up an Adirondack chair to sit beside her. He leaned against the wooden seatback, casually stretched his arms. But his mood wasn't as casual as he wanted her to think. His gaze seemed intently focused behind those concealing sunglasses, and she didn't know if his sitting so close was significant.
Were they dating?
Could she ask?
Um, excuse me, Dev, I was in a coma for nearly eight months, and rehab since. Can you just catch me up on the current status of our relationship?
A thought struck her. That Not Ready comment of Lisa's a few minutes ago.
Not Ready to hear that Dev had moved on to someone else?
But she didn't have time to examine the cold pit that opened deep in her stomach at this idea. There shouldn't be a pit! He'd been up front with her nine months ago. "I have nothing to offer, Jodie," he'd said. "I'm only here until Dad is ready to go back to work. My career is in New York, it's pretty fullon, no room for commitment, and I'm not looking for it. I really like being with you, but if you're interested in something longterm, it's not with me."
How did a woman respond to something like that? She knew Dev had said it out of innate honesty and goodness of heart. He wasn't the kind of man who promised what he couldn't deliver, or tricked a woman into bed with sweettalking lies. He called it how he saw it, and when he laid his cards on the table, he laid them straight.
Nine months ago he'd been all about the short term, about saying goodbye when it was over, with a big grin, warm wishes and no regrets for either of them, yet now he was sitting beside her, searching her face, examining the set of her shoulders as if he cared that she might not be coping.
Which she wasn't, fully.
Everything was happening too fast. Dev stood up to greet Lisa's husband. Mom and Dad came out from the kitchen, Dad in full male barbecue armor, with plastic apron and an impressive weaponry of implements. The front doorbell rang and Elin went to answer it.
And sister number threeMaddyand her husband, John, were here, having at last managed to negotiate the trip from their car. They'd come around the side of the house and climbed the steps to the deck carrying two bulging diaper bags, some kind of squishy portable baby gym and a baby in a carrier.
Their baby. Their little girl. Tiny. Just a few weeks old. Jodie hadn't even known Maddy was pregnant. She'd only been told about baby Lucy after she was bornanother questionable instance of Not Ready and hadn't seen her yet, because Maddy and John lived in Cincinnati, two hours from Leighville, the Palmer family's Southern Ohio hometown.
"Oh, she's asleep!" Mom crooned. "Oh, what an angel! She already looks so much bigger than she did two weeks ago."
"Can we put her somewhere quiet?" Maddy asked.
But it was too late. The baby began to waken, stretching her little body in the cramped space of the car carrier and letting out a keening cry.
"Oh, she needs a feed," Maddy said. "Where shall I go?"
"Not here," Dad said. He was a traditional man, with a passion for woodworking and gadgetry. In his world, feeding and diaper changes didn't belong in the same space as a barbecue.
"You wouldn't believe how difficult it was just to get here, all the gear we had to bring. John, can you set up some pillows for me in? Oh, where!"
"My room," Jodie said quickly. "There's a heap of pillows, and fresh flowers, and a rocking chair."
"Oops, I'm going to have to change her first " But John had already gone to ready the room. Maddy held Lucy with the baby's legs awkwardly dangling and her little face screwed up as she screamed, and looked around for the diaper bag. "She's in a mess. Oh, I'm not good at any of this yet! Where's the monitor? We'll need it if she naps. I have no idea if she will. And when she cries like this. First baby at thirtysix, people do say it's harder."
"Here, don't worry, it's fine." Of all people, it was Dev who stepped forward and took the crying baby. He cradled her against his shoulder and commenced a kind of rocking sway and a rhythmic soothing sound. "Shhsh, shhsh, it's okay, Mommy's coming in a minute, shhsh, shhsh." Jodie felt a strange, unwanted tingling in her breasts and a familiar yearning in her heart. Why did he do this to her when she tried so hard to stay sensible? How could he possibly look so confident and so good, holding a poopstained baby? Why was he still in Ohio, and not back in New York?
She had a vivid flashback, suddenly, to the first night they'd made love. Bed on the first date. You weren't supposed to do that, if you were a female with a warm heart, but of course it hadn't felt like the first date. She'd known Dev since she was sixteen, and she'd responded to him with half a lifetime of pentup feelingto his hands so right on her body, to his voice so familiar in her ear.
"Thank you, Dev!" Maddy unzipped the diaper bag and rummaged around inside. She didn't seem surprised that Devlin had taken control, but Jodie was.
Not about the control, but about the thing he was in control of. If you were talking legal contracts or high finance or building plans, team sports, political wrangling, then, yes, Devlin Browne could take control in a heartbeat. Would always take control. But when it was a baby?
What did he know about babies?
He doesn't even want kids.
The thought came out of nowhere, one of the memories from before the accident that her brain threw out apparently at random. "Did I have amnesia?" Jodie had asked at one point.
"Not like in the movies," theyher doctors and therapistshad said. "But of course there are some gaps. Many of them you'll eventually fill in. Some you never will."
"Like the accident itself?"
"Yes, it's quite probable you'll never remember that."
But she remembered that Dev didn't want kids.
How did she remember that?
She searched her mind, watching him as he gently bounced the baby on his shoulder. He wore jeans and a gray polo shirt with black trim, filling the clothing with a body honed by running and wilderness sports. The fabric of the jeans pulled tightly across his thighs, and the sleeveband of the polo shirt was tight, too. There was some impressive muscle mass there, and Jodie's fingers remembered it, even while she was trying to remember the other thingthe thing about him not wanting kids.
If he didn't want kids, how could he school all that male strength into the tender touch and soft rhythm needed to soothe a newborn baby? When Maddy was ready, he handed Lucy over to her, and casually warned, "Watch the wet patch on her back."
But he didn't want any of his own
Okay, it was over dinner, she remembered. They'd been out togetherand slept together, heaven help herthree times since his temporary return to Leighville. As far as Jodie's family were concerned, she and Dev had only been dipping their toes in the waters of the great big dating lake.
To her, though, it immediately felt deeper. She'd had a major crush on him at sixteen when he'd briefly dated one of her good friends before heDevhad left for college in Chicago a couple of months later. Turned out the crush had never really gone away.
She couldn't track back to how the subject of kids had come up that night. Maybe something to do with his restless lifestyle. He was based in New York these days, but his work in international law took him all over the worldthree months in London, a summer in Prague. He'd only come home for a couple of months last fall to take over his father's smalltown legal practice on a temporary basis while Mac Browne had heart surgery.
Okay, so she might possibly have asked Dev, over their meal, if he ever intended to settle down.